Now, this little book is a bit of a revelation. Anthropology may seem a bit off the radar but there are rich pickings in here. In ‘I swear I saw this’ Taussig makes a strong case for the use of drawing during fieldwork and includes some stunning quotes about the power of the fast drawing as opposed to detailed writing. Here’s one such quote…
“Whether looked at on their own or in the context of their surrounding text, the drawings in notebooks that I have in mind seem to me to butt against realism, with its desire for completeness. The drawings comes across as fragments that are suggestive of a world beyond, a world that does not have to be explicitly recorded and is in fact all the more “complete” because it cannot be completed. In pointing away from the real, they capture something invisible and auratic that makes the thing depicted worth depicting”.
What is particularly striking is the idea that recording everything precisely is to “erase” it. Taussig uses a wonderful quote from Stephane Mallarme – “The flowers that fall from my mouth are changed into toads” to emphasise the point that as soon as something is spoken it loses its magic, and that nothing can be entirely captured through language.
Reading the book made me reflect on the rough little sketches of things I’ve made over the years. His book helped me realise why I like looking at them (despite the fact they are not ‘good’ drawings). They’re made purely to remind me of something seen on the streets, usually something quite ordinary, made very quickly. It doesn’t matter that the drawing is not precise because it’s not meant to be seen by anyone else. What makes it ‘good’ for me is precisely its imprecision. Looking back at this tiny sketch I can still imagine the old woman and her old dog sharing the same staggering walk, something that seemed strangely moving at the time, despite only fleetingly seen. Their movement was in my thoughts when my hand moved to draw this – a photograph just wouldn’t have captured this for me (though the dog might have ended up with 4 legs!).
When referring to sketches of everyday life I really have to mention Danny Gregory and his mantra which is ‘draw everyday’. His sketch-based books are exactly what Taussig would appreciate. Gregory appreciates life by constantly drawing the life around him, capturing its essence rather than its exact likeness. Taussig does exactly the same thing but in far flung countries - to capture unfamiliar life and to make more sense of it.
So, the old woman and her dog will continue shuffling through the pages of my notebook. Life itself really is a revelation if you take time to look and draw. Even a quick glance momentarily recorded on paper tells us something. So maybe we all should be picking up that pencil more often, suspending all judgement of quality, and enjoying freezing a moment in time – it will still be there, ready for us to “complete”, or defrost it, the next time we open the book.